The importance of Pacific Mail

The success of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., particularly after the opening of the Panama Railroad, justified an increase in service. To the original three steamers on the Pacific side, the California, Oregon and Panama, were added larger and more elegant ships while on the Atlantic a greater number of vessels were on hand for both passengers and freight. The original purpose of the company had been to carry the mail and two steamers a month regularly traveled between Panama and San Francisco and as far north as Oregon.

Pacific Mail Steamer Golden Gate, 1850s

The distance from New York to San Francisco by way of Panama was fifty-seven hundred miles and this required a travel time of twenty-five days. For more than ten years, or until the start of the short lived Pony Express in 1860, and then on until the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the company delivered nearly all eastern mail plus passengers and fast freight from the east to San Francisco.

Pacific Mail Steamship ad

The arrival of the steamers was such an important event that from the moment a sighting was made from Point Lobos a signal was sent to Telegraph Hill where the news was telegraphed by the signal pole and this picked up by the Merchants Exchange where a flag was run up and the information sent to the newspaper offices. On a clear day the steamer could be seen for thirty miles or more so it could be several hours before it arrived.

Pacific Mail Steamer Tennessee

Newspapers prepared to run special editions with any startling reports that might come. Meantime carriages, hand carts, wagons, porters, businessmen, hotel porters, policemen, friends of arriving passengers, and spectators of all kinds crowded the steamship wharf and formed a usually good natured crowd that laughed and joked as the ship drew up to the pier and was made fast. The arrival of a Pacific Mail Steamship was a big event in the life of early San Francisco.



  1. It was because of the capture of a mail ship off the coast of Chile that my great grandfather’s ship HMS Shah was sent to apprehend the then rebel held gunship Huascar in the 1870’s John. 馃檪

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